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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on Bari

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

PART 58: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.


We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter.

Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some gems worth sharing. Some of these are well-known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing. This week, let's explore St. Nicholas in Bari.


Step 2: My first impression of Bari was from the train station on our way to Lecce. As we looked out at block after block of ugly apartment buildings, we imagined that the town may not be worth visiting.


Our friend stayed overnight in Bari and explored the town one evening. "How was it?" we asked. "The historical center in Lecce is better," was his reply.


So we put off a trip to Bari for a while.


I spent 25 years as a history teacher, and the stories and tomb of St. Nicholas in Bari kept tugging at me. So, after much delay, we finally jumped in the car and made the 2-hour drive to the center of Bari.


I was sure surprised.


Step 3: What we saw.


We put "Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari" in Google Maps, which led us along the coast, with rocky beaches and dilapidated buildings on the other. The beaches became more beautiful as we approached the town center, and the buildings grew in elegance. When we neared the Basilica area, we said "Wow!" repeatedly. A beautiful park, seafront baroque buildings, and a gracious promenade welcomed us to a different world than the one next to the railroad tracks.


Parking was easy, and we soon stepped into a unique and beautiful historical center. The Bari historical center feels more lived in than Lecce, with winding streets, hanging laundry, excellent shops, and cafes. As we wandered the tourist and residential streets, we were surprised at how cool Bari Central is. We both decided that it is a "not to be missed" part of Puglia, in which the history and culture of the past shine from the architecture and the people.


After walking through the old town for about an hour, I was starving, so we stopped at a Salumeria, where I had the best sandwich I had ever eaten. Fresh, crunchy bread, aged prosciutto, creamy mozzarella, and a swirl of fig sauce made me want more.


But we were here for a purpose: I wanted to see the tomb of the real St. Nicholas.


Step 4: The church.

The Basilica of St. Nicholas is relatively easy to find; the town seems to grow out of it. But when we entered the large piazza and looked up, we were overwhelmed with the incredible Romanesque architecture, built with big white blocks of limestone, soaring to the sky.


The church was built in the 12th century to house the remains of St. Nicholas. How did St. Nicholas, who died in 343 AD in present-day Turkey, get to Bari? The short story is that sailors from Bari stole his body, but the longer story, which I related in my book (Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy), is much more intriguing.


The church's interior is simple, in a restrained Romanesque sort of way, with a Baroque ceiling. Fortunately, in the 20th century, much of the Baroque overlay was removed to return the basilica to its original design; only the ornate ceiling, of a later date, was left in place.


I explored the church, which oozes history, from its Byzantine-style columns to its soaring ceiling and the women's galleries overlooking the central nave. I sat down to experience the atmosphere as a participant rather than a tourist at a certain point. I noticed an orthodox priest, bearded with a long robe, praying in one area; a few rows over, I noted two Catholic priests saying their prayers. The church is a pilgrimage destination for both Catholic and Orthodox churches, St. Nicholas being a sign of unity, even today.


I liked the sacred atmosphere of the church, and it left me with a sense of peace.

We then descended into the tomb below the main altar. I was eager to approach that area where St. Nicholas lay and to touch his spirit somehow. But, once in the tomb area, the touristy atmosphere put me off. Chatting, picture-taking, and general chaos overshadowed the room. We approached the altar and looked for an indication that this was where St. Nicholas' remains lay, but there was no sign or explanation anywhere. But from the artwork on and below the underground altar, we concluded that we were standing in front of the tomb of St. Nicholas.


I was a little disappointed as I ascended the stairs to the basilica above. The talking, selfie-taking, and touristy atmosphere contrasted with the sacred silence of the church above. Plus, the lack of any historical explanations posted in the tomb area made me wonder why.


When we got back to the basilica, I sat down again to grab onto that sense of peace and history that was easy to feel. After a few minutes, I smiled and realized that the spirit of St. Nicholas was here, on the upper level!


Once I lit a candle, we left to continue our adventures.


Step 5: Stories and history.


When I write about a historical era or person, I want to ensure I have my facts correct, so I do much research before putting anything into words. I decided to focus on the history of St. Nicholas when I wrote the chapter on Bari in my Puglia book because he turned out to be a fascinating man.

Separating fact from legend can be challenging when writing historical fiction, and many legends surround Nicholas. But some of the essential points that emerged from my research include: he came from a wealthy family, lost his parents at a relatively young age, and his uncle, a bishop, raised him like a son. Nicholas had incredible empathy for people experiencing poverty and soon gave away his wealth and possessions. He followed in his uncle's footsteps and became an important voice in early Christianity as Christians tried to understand their core beliefs, resulting in what is called today the Nicene Creed.


The compassion and empathy of Nicholas speak to me today, and as we left the church that contains his remains, I hoped that I would learn to be a little more attentive to those in need.


Insights: Stories can bring a place or person to life; I learned this from my high school students when I taught social studies. St. Nicholas became more real when we visited Bari; his life now has meaning in a way that it didn't before.


I am so grateful that we took the time to visit Bari. It is a "must-see".


More next time.


My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Puglia-Californians-Southern-Italy/dp/1913680649.


And also, on Amazon Italy:



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